Being Dead Is No Excuse

The Official Southern Ladies Guide to Hosting the Perfect Funeral


By Gayden Metcalfe

By Charlotte Hays

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A hilarious guide to the intricate rituals, customs, and etiquette surrounding death in the South-and a practical collection of recipes for the final send-off.

As author Gayden Metcalfe asserts, people in the Delta have a strong sense of community, and being dead is no impediment to belonging to it. Down south, they don’t forget you when you’ve up and died-they may even like you better and visit you more often! But just as there is an appropriate way to live your life in the South, there is an equally essentially tasteful way of departing it-and the funeral is the final social event of your existence so it must be handled flawlessly. Metcalfe portrays this slice of American culture from the manners, customs, and the tomato aspic with mayonnaise that characterize the Delta way of death.

Southerners love to swap tales, and Gayden Metcalfe, native of Greenville, MS, founder of the Greenville Arts Council and chairman of the St. James Episcopal Church Bazaar, is steeped in the stories and traditions of this rich region. She reminisces about the prominent family that drank too much and got the munchies the night before the big event-and left not a crumb for the funeral (Naturally some early rising, quick-witted ladies from the church saved the day, so the story demonstrates some solutions to potential entertaining disasters!). Then there was the lady who allocated money to have “Home on the Range” sung at the service, and the family that insisted on a portrait of their mother in her casket, only to refuse to pay for it on the grounds that “Mama looks so sad.”

Each chapter ends with an authentic southern recipe that will come in handy if you “plan to die tastefully”, including Boiled Bourbon Custard; Aunt Hebe’s Coconut Cake; Pickled Shrimp; Homemade Mayonnaise; and Homemade Rolls.



Dying Tastefully in the Mississippi Delta

After the solemnity of the church service and finality of the grave, the people of the Mississippi Delta are just dying to get to the house of the bereaved for the reception. This is one of the three times a Southerner gets out all the good china and silver: the other two are christenings and weddings. The silver has most likely been specially polished for the occasion. Polishing silver is the Southern lady's version of grief therapy.

Southern ladies have a thing about polishing silver. We'd be hard pressed to tell you how many of our friends and their mothers have greeted the sad news of a death in the family by going straight to the silver chest and starting to polish everything inside. Maybe it has something to do with an atavistic memory of defending our silver from the Yankees, but it does ensure that the silver will be sparkling for the reception, which almost always follows the funeral.

Friends and family begin arriving with covered dishes, finger foods, and sweets as soon as the word is out that somebody has died. We regard it as a civic duty to show up at the house and at the funeral because what we call a "big funeral" is respectful to the dead and flattering to the surviving relatives. After the cemetery, people go back to the house to be received by the family. Sometimes we talk bad about the deceased between the grave and the aspic, but we straighten up and are on best behavior the minute we get to the house.

During the reception, we gossip, tell stories about the deceased, and maybe indulge in a toddy or two. (Our county used to be "dry," but all that means is that we drink like fish, though we do make a special, if not always successful, effort to behave well at funerals—see "I Was So Embarrassed I Liketa Died," page 99.) You can't bury a self-respecting Deltan without certain foods. Chief among these is tomato aspic with homemade mayonnaise—without which you practically can't get a death certificate—closely followed by Aunt Hebe's Coconut Cake, and Virginia's Butterbeans. "You get the best food at funerals," we always say, and it's true. Funeral procedure is something that we all just know. A legion of friends working behind the scenes, coordinating the food, makes sure that the essential Delta death foods are represented in sufficient quantities. The best friend of the lady of the house, along with members of the appropriate church committee, swing into action without prompting. Almost everybody who attends the burial automatically stops by the house afterward, and it's a social occasion. One friend, on being thanked for attending a funeral, blurted out, "No, thank you! I wouldn't have missed it for the world."

The burial, which is solemn though rarely entirely devoid of humor, most likely takes place at the old cemetery on South Main Street. The old cemetery is one of the best addresses in Greenville, Mississippi. Being buried anywhere else is a fate worse than death in Greenville. The FFGs—that's First Families of Greenville—would simply refuse to die if they weren't assured of a spot. Not that the old cemetery is strictly FFG. Not by a long shot. Lola Belle Crittenden, bless her heart, had to plant a huge hedge around her ancestral plot. Why? The neighbors. "They're so tacky," Lola Belle huffed.

Although we always plan to have a good time at the reception, we revere the dead. Ancestor worship is as valid a form of religion as the Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, or Episcopal denominations in the Mississippi Delta. The cemetery is so sacred to the memory of our dead relatives that the whole town was up in arms when the local newspaper desecrated it. They did this by posing a high-school beauty queen in front of one of our most important graveyard monuments for a picture. Nothing has upset us quite so much before or since. For days on end nobody could talk about anything else, and the paper's Letters to the Editor page was filled with aggrieved missives. Old ladies shuddered at the thought that similar sacrileges might one day be committed on their graves. The paper had to grovel for forgiveness in print or face a serious drop in circulation. The newspaper was owned by Yankees, and, being outsiders, they just didn't know any better.

We're people with a strong sense of community, and being dead is no impediment to belonging to it. We won't forget you just because you've up and died. We may even like you better and visit you more often. As the former Presbyterian minister used to say in his justly celebrated funeral oration (I'd like to have a dime for every time I've heard it), dying just means you've "graduated."

We're good about remembering the dead with flowers on just about every holiday from Christmas Day to Groundhog Day. There's one family that was so intent on remembering Mama that they insisted on having her photographed in her coffin. The photographer balked but was finally persuaded. Afterward, the family flatly refused to pay. The eldest son explained why: "Mama looked so sad."

The old cemetery sees quite a bit of traffic, from the living and the dead. "This is a hard place to get out of," we invariably chortle when navigating our way through the gates and back onto Main Street. Some people, no doubt attracted by the prestige and the quiet, bucolic setting, have added to overcrowding problems by moving to the old cemetery years after they actually died. When Adelle Atkins, a widow, married James Gilliam, a Greenville widower, she insisted on bringing her late husband, Harry, along. She asked whether she could re-bury him on the Gilliam family plot.

Adelle's new in-laws—alas, already beginning to be packed into their plot like sardines in a can—were appalled. They were obsessed with who would go where when the day came. And, besides, they hated the notion of new dead people coming in and just taking over. But Adelle is a determined woman, and she would not back down. Luckily for her, the Miss Finlays, two maiden lady schoolteachers, lived—or rather their dead relatives were buried—right next door to the Gilliams. Being old maids, they did not face the problem of potential overcrowding and were glad to have some extra cash. Adelle purchased half their plot and—voila!—Harry moved to Greenville.

We worry a lot about what will happen when the old cemetery fills up. Whenever Alice Hunt, who lives in New York, comes to Greenville, she goes straight to the cemetery and stretches out on her spot to reassure herself that nobody has encroached. She plans to wait for the final trumpet next to her Mama. Her big fear is ending up in the new part of the cemetery where, she says, she doesn't know a soul. There are a few fortunate families who don't have to worry about their future resting places because they still have private family cemeteries on plantations. This carries even more status than the old Greenville cemetery, but it's a lot of trouble. Jane Jeffreys Claiborne has spent her entire adult life fretting about the state of the old Claiborne cemetery on Woodville Plantation. Every time old Mrs. Claiborne got the sniffles, Jane Jeffreys lovingly put a gardener to work. She wanted the best for her mother-in-law, a funeral worthy of a Claiborne. Old Mrs. Claiborne would take one look, note the work going on in her honor, and immediately perk up. It worked better than penicillin. One day, of course, Mrs. Claiborne did die, and the cemetery looked so beautiful it made the rest of us envious. We were all thinking the same thing: I wish my family still had a private cemetery. Note the still. There are few things considered nicer than having your own cemetery.

Cremation is a possible solution to the overcrowding problem. But it's still a new and dicey proposition in the Delta. The last time somebody was cremated, his ashes were sprinkled from a crop duster. We all ran for cover. We liked him fine, but we didn't want him all over our good clothes. But you've got to say this: the folks who owned the property where the ashes were scattered had a darned good cotton crop the next year.

Maribell Wilson, whose father died in a hospital in Texas, had a different kind of problem. Maribell lived according to the cardinal rule of Southern ladyhood: Never learn to do anything you don't have to do. Maribell always needed somebody to drive her places. She finally relented and got a license and eventually became one of the worst drivers in the Delta, which is saying a lot. She was alone with her daddy when he died in Texas. Maribell had him cremated, as he had wished, and set out for home in a rental car with Daddy in a little box. Unfortunately, not being overly familiar with highway signs and such, Maribell got lost again and again and ended up on every back road between San Antonio and the Greenville city limits. It was hot as Hades, and Maribell kept the windows down. (She could have turned on the air conditioner, but nobody had ever showed her how.) When Maribell pulled into the driveway and opened the box, she was surprised to discover that Daddy had blown away on the ride home.

Then there was the man who took his Daddy to Memphis to scatter him in the big city where Daddy had grown up. He had to meet some friends for lunch and unwisely left Daddy in the office of a coworker, who carelessly put Daddy in her out-box. Unfortunately, somebody accidentally removed poor Daddy while she wasn't paying attention. Even though they searched high and low, Daddy was never found. Clearly, the cremation angle needs a little work to be viable in the Mississippi Delta.

Southern women always want to look their best—even if they happen to be dead. Our local undertaker, Bubba Boone, understands this. We brag that Bubba can make you look better than a plastic surgeon can, though, unfortunately, you do have to be dead to avail yourself of his ministrations. He did an outstanding job on Sue Dell Potter, a retired waitress. Sue Dell expressed a strange desire to go into the ground looking exactly as she had in her long-past waitress days. We went to call on Sue Dell at the funeral home and—lo and behold—she sported a big, teased bouffant and, unless you'd known her back when she was waiting tables and flirting up a storm at Jim's Café on Washington Avenue, you'd never have believed it was Sue Dell. But we feel certain Sue Dell was smiling down from heaven (with her now fire-engine-red lips) and thanking Bubba for his excellent work.

We'd better warn you not to put too much credence in the dates carved on the headstones. We Southern women tend to lie about our age—even when we're dead. Allison Parker, who always had a thing for younger men, made a complete fool of herself by knocking off five years. We died laughing when we saw the stone, because, if anybody looked her age, it was Allison Parker.

In the South, the casket is sometimes left open for visitation at the funeral home or when the body is brought home. There's nothing like a receiving line with somebody laid out a few feet away. Roberta Shaw used to be so afraid of dead bodies that she wouldn't allow even her own poor mother, Mrs. Robert Shaw, to fulfill her lifelong dream of lying in state on the dining room table in the big formal dining room at Runymeade Plantation.. She has since overcome this fear, and she wants to atone for what she believes must have been a huge disappointment for Mrs. Shaw. Now, whenever a friend or relative dies, Roberta crouches by the coffin and whispers to them. "Well, you'll never guess who just walked in," she whispered to Augusta Jones. Augusta, being dead, had absolutely no idea.

One of the rules in the South is that the newly dead are never left alone—somebody always sits with the coffin, day or night. Don't ask me why, but it wouldn't be right to leave a relative unattended. It used to be that most people took the body home before the burial and received guests with Mama right there. This custom, regrettably, isn't followed as often as it once was, though some families still uphold the tradition. The last time somebody did, it turned out sort of awkward. The body, which belonged to a local matriarch, stayed in the living room for an entire week. Somebody joked that the family was waiting for the out-of-town relatives to get the lowest airline fares possible. If you didn't make a sharp left turn into the dining room, you ended up face to face with the late wife of the town's leading lawyer.

We are sad at funerals, but there's no such thing as a funeral without a humorous moment. Once a visiting Episcopal minister took a step backward and fell smack into the grave. It certainly livened up the service. Since he went on to advocate advanced ideas, some of us wish we'd hit him on the head with a shovel. Not many have forgotten the time one of our more intellectual citizens died, and the Presbyterian minister, who'd known her forever, was out of town. The family rustled up a supply minister who'd never laid eyes on her. The night before the funeral, the family gathered to tell him all about the deceased, her fortitude in the face of a long sickness, her appreciation of art and literature. The sisters, knowing their big sister would want it, requested the minister to read some poetry, meaning maybe a bit of Shakespeare or Keats. But the visiting divine chose "Keep a-Goin'." (" 'Taint no use to sit and whine 'cause the fish ain't on your line; Bait your hook an' keep on tryin', keep a-goin'.") The bereaved sisters were doubled over with laughter. If you can't find something to laugh about, you will end up crying.

Here are some recipes that will come in handy if you want to die as tastefully as we do in the Mississippi Delta.


Bourbon Boiled Custard

While this boiled custard is delicious on its own, it also can be used to dress up a humdrum pound cake somebody has brought. We offer this recipe in memory of Josie Pattison Winn, of Greenville and New Orleans, who was known as the boiled-custard queen of the Mississippi Delta. Josie was famous for knocking on the front door with this luscious concoction practically before the body was cold. It was, well, to die for. Here's an easy version of our most comforting custard. The little touch of bourbon will help even the most distraught.


1 cup sugar

4 eggs, beaten

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

pinch salt

3 cups scalded milk

1 cup heavy (whipping) cream

2 teaspoons vanilla

¼ cup bourbon

In the top of a double boiler, combine the sugar, beaten eggs, flour, and salt. Then place the mixture over boiling water and slowly add the milk and cream. Stir constantly until the mixture coats the spoon. Immediately remove the mixture from the heat and add the vanilla and bourbon. Refrigerate. After this is well chilled, it will thicken. Enjoy this as is or serve it in a pitcher to put on a slice of cake or bowl of fruit. Multipurpose and prep time is not long.

Makes about six servings.


Aunt Hebe's Coconut Cake

We're already thinking about this coconut cake before the last "amen." This recipe comes from the late Hebe Smythe Crittenden, one of the renowned cooks of the Mississippi Delta. Gayden's mother excelled at making Aunt Hebe's Coconut Cake. Her mother (and we're sure Aunt Hebe) never used canned coconut. She can remember taking the ice pick and poking the eyes out of a coconut and draining the milk. Then, she'd get the hammer and crack the nut for someone to get the meat out and grate it.



1 cup unsalted butter

2 cups sugar

4 eggs, separated, at room temperature

2 cups cake flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

½ cup fresh coconut milk (If you don't have time for real coconut milk, use 1 cup whole milk instead of ½ cup of each.)

½ cup whole milk

2 teaspoons vanilla

Before you start mixing, preheat the oven to 350°.

Cream the butter and sugar until fluffy. Beat in the egg yolks one at a time, incorporating well. Add the vanilla. Resift the cake flour with the baking powder and add sifted ingredients to the butter mixture.

Blend together one third of the milk mixture and one third of the butter mixture. Repeat until the mixtures are well incorporated. Beat the egg whites until stiff and fold them gently, by hand, into the batter.

You should have three 9-inch greased and floured pans. Divide the batter evenly among the pans and bake in a 350° oven for 25 to 30 minutes, or until the cakes are golden brown and they have pulled away from the edges of the pan. Cool for 5 minutes and then turn out.

When the cakes are completely cooled, you can ice them.


Real Icing


2 ½ cups sugar

½ cup water

2 ½ tablespoons clear Karo syrup

¼ teaspoon cream of tartar

2 egg whites

pinch of salt

2 ½ teaspoons vanilla

freshly grated coconut

Combine the sugar, water, and Karo and boil for about 5 minutes. Beat the egg whites with the cream of tartar until stiff. Pour the hot syrup into the beaten egg whites, slowly and beating all the time. Continue to beat this mixture until the icing is stiff and glossy. Add a pinch of salt and the vanilla. Spread a little icing between each layer. Then ice the sides and top, and garnish the whole cake with freshly grated coconut. You can use an electric hand mixer to beat this icing.

Serves twelve.


Tomato Aspic

Can you be buried without tomato aspic? Not in the Mississippi Delta, you can't. We've never been to a funeral where homemade aspic wasn't served. Store-bought aspic is available, but no self-respecting Southerner would be caught dead—sorry—eating it. If you've never had real tomato aspic, you're in for a treat.

This is the recipe Gayden uses most often because it is equally delicious with just mayonnaise, or with pickled shrimp, avocado slices, and other trimmings.


4 cups tomato juice

6 slices lemon

3 slices yellow onion, separated into rings

2 bay leaves

tops of one bunch of celery

several whole cloves

3 tablespoons horseradish

1 ½ teaspoons salt

1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper

1 tablespoon lemon juice

1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce (Lea & Perrins)

4 envelopes Knox unflavored gelatin

½ cup apple cider vinegar

Put the tomato juice, lemon slices, onion slices, bay leaves, celery tops, and cloves in a heavy pot and simmer for 20 minutes, more or less. While this simmers, mix together the gelatin and vinegar. Strain the tomato juice mixture and add the gelatin mixture. Stir until the gelatin has dissolved. No lumps! Add horseradish, salt, pepper, lemon juice, and Worcestershire sauce. Taste and correct seasoning.

Lightly oil a 6-cup mold. Pour the mixture into the mold and chill until firm, several hours or overnight. Overnight is best. Unmold on a bed of greens. If the aspic will not come out of the pan easily, run a knife around the edge or dip the pan into a sink of hot water—just for a second!

Serves ten.


Homemade Mayonnaise

People act as if it takes an act of God to make homemade mayonnaise. It doesn't. But there is a real debate in Gayden's family as to whether homemade mayonnaise should be thick or thin. Her mother swears by runny, but Gayden's tends to be a little more firm. Of course, her mother makes hers by hand or with an old-fashioned Wesson oil-plunger contraption. This is now a collector's item, and Gayden uses a food processor. Here's her version:


1 large egg

1 ½ cups vegetable oil

1 ½ tablespoons apple cider vinegar

1 ½ teaspoons Tabasco sauce

1 tablespoon lemon juice

½ teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon white pepper

Assemble all ingredients. Put the egg in the food processor. Pulse for 30 seconds, and then add the oil slowly, while pulsing. When the desired consistency is reached, add the other ingredients until they are blended. This doesn't take very long! Of course, taste and adjust seasonings. But know: If you blend too long you will get a version that is too thick. Thin seems to be the preferred lady consistency.

Refrigerate for at least an hour, as the taste improves. We always have a jar of this in the icebox, and it hasn't killed us yet.

Makes about two cups.


Pickled Shrimp

Pickled shrimp are perfect with aspic. Without aspic, they are more appropriate for a cocktail party than for lunch after the funeral. Although our mothers wore dark colors and didn't go out socially for months after a death in the family, we no longer observe an official period of mourning, even in the Mississippi Delta. Still, we'd be shocked if you gave a cocktail party too soon. There's nothing to stop a friend from having a restorative cocktail party for you, however, as long as it's not done in unseemly haste.


5 pounds shrimp

7 teaspoons salt

1 cup celery tops

½ cup pickling spice

4 cups sliced onions

a few bay leaves

2 ½ cups salad oil

1 ½ cups white vinegar

5 teaspoons celery seeds

2 teapoons salt

1 jar (3 ¼-ounce) of capers

Drop the shrimp into boiling water to which salt, celery tops, and pickling spice have been added. Boil 8 minutes. Drain immediately and cool. DO NOT LET THE SHRIMP OVERCOOK. Peel and de-vein the shrimp. Using a large glass container, alternate layers of shrimp with onion slices and bay leaves.

Mix the salad oil, vinegar, celery seeds, and salt. Pour over the shrimp. Drain the capers and add them to the shrimp. Place the container in the refrigerator for at least three days. Turn once or twice a day, without fail.

To serve, drain, reserving liquid in case you have shrimp left over.

Serves twenty as an appetizer, twelve as a first course.


Mary Mac's Rolls

One of the most appreciated offerings is rolls. You can put them on the buffet table with the ham and homemade mayonnaise or hot mustard for sandwiches.


1 cup boiling water

¾ cup shortening

1 ½ teaspoons salt

¾ cup sugar

2 eggs, beaten

2 packages active dry yeast

1 cup warm water

6 cups flour


On Sale
May 7, 2013
Page Count
272 pages
Hachette Books

Gayden Metcalfe

About the Author

Gayden Metcalfe is a native of Greenville, MS, where she has risen from holding several key offices in the Dirt Daubers, a pre-teen garden club, to executing various duties in the Greenville chapters of the Garden Club of America. She has served as the vice president of the Delta Council and publisher of Delta Wildlife magazine. She is married to Harley Metcalfe III and has two children. Being Dead Is No Excuse is her first book.

Charlotte Hays is a Delta native and former gossip column contributor at the Washington Times, New York Observer and New York Daily News. She lives in Washington, D.C.

Learn more about this author

Charlotte Hays

About the Author

Gayden Metcalfeis a native of Greenville, MS, where she has risen from holding several key offices in the Dirt Daubers, a preteen garden club, to executing various duties in the Greenville chapters of the Garden Club of America. She has served as the vice president of the Delta Council and publisher of Delta Wildlife magazine. She is married to Harley Metcalfe III and has two children. She is the author of three books.Charlotte Hays is a Delta native and former gossip column contributor at the Washington Times, New York Observer and New York Daily News. She lives in Washington, D.C.

Learn more about this author